First Thoughts: George’s disastrous medicine, German wine returns and a sanitised “Hark! The Herald”

 Eh? Shouldn’t something about a virgin’s womb be there?

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“We do not have enough doctors,” the hospital assistant explains, ringing to cancel my wife’s appointment at short notice. Patients hear this more and more. As if austerity hadn’t caused enough problems for the NHS, George Osborne created another in his last budget as chancellor. Pensions tax relief, costing some £40bn annually, is scandalously regressive. Contribute to your pension and the government adds a bonus according to the highest tax rate you pay. If you pay just a few pounds in tax at 45 per cent, your whole contribution gets a 45 per cent lift.

Even a Tory could see that this was unjust. But instead of giving all tax relief at the basic 20 per cent rate – risking protests from Tory supporters about the loss of a lucrative perk – Osborne introduced a complicated “taper” whereby the upper limit on contributions that qualify for relief, including employers’ contributions, is gradually reduced. Nobody protested because nobody understood it.

The effects are only now emerging. Highly paid medics, particularly if they work variable overtime as many do, are receiving enormous unexpected tax bills. You may not sympathise with affluent people who will eventually get generous inflation-proofed pensions. But their behaviour is logical: to avoid future bills, they refuse overtime or retire early. Though the government claims it has fixed the problem, the doctors’ union says it has not.

This is a perfect example of how, instead of just doing the right thing, chancellors protect themselves from political fire with layers of complexity. Trouble comes when a chancellor has left office and is, for example, editing the London Evening Standard while also grossing £650,000 annually from an American investment corporation.

Inferno down under 

Will Australia be fit for human habitation in 2050? I ask this question in all seriousness as fires rage across the country and ash falls from the sky in Sydney. With 70 per cent of its land classified as arid or semi-arid and 85 per cent of its population living within 30 miles of the coast, Australia is also threatened by drought and flood. Yet it is the world’s fourth largest coal producer and elects leaders who deny man-made global heating. Unfortunately, even if it stops producing coal tomorrow, bush fires and heatwaves will still continue for years. That is why it is so hard for governments to prioritise action on climate change. In political terms, the subject has no retail value.

Cheers to Remainia!

German wines, it is reported, are making a comeback, with one London wine merchant saying sales are up 40 per cent in a year. But not, perhaps, in Mansfield or Hartlepool. The new fans of German wines, I suspect, are largely among the Remain-supporting metropolitan middle classes, who wish to back the linchpin of the European Union. Brexiteers mostly drink real English ale and, if they drink wine at all, will toast our EU departure with English vintages. Most of us know less about what we drink than we pretend and will therefore choose according to our culture-war allegiances.

The Reverend Google

The magnificent Fishpond Choir (named after a Matlock Bath pub where it was founded and still rehearses) was in full flow in a Derbyshire village church at my first carol concert of the season. “Hark! the herald angels sing… Late in time behold him come,/Offspring of the favoured one.” Eh? Shouldn’t something about a virgin’s womb be there? I checked online and found the Reverend Google also has “the favoured one”, presumably borrowed from the angel Gabriel’s address to Mary (Luke 1:26).

Google attributes the revised version to the US gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who died in 1972. Yet my researches suggest that even the Daily Telegraph didn’t spot the change – and rouse bishops to indignation – until this time last year. Perhaps we shall hear more of it shortly. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without the press getting into a lather about someone tampering with its traditions.

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Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 13 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special